Soprano / Broadcaster / Magazine Editor  Ruby  Mercer

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



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Ruby (m Por) Mercer. Writer, broadcaster, soprano, b Athens, Ohio, 26 Jul 1906, d Toronto 26 Jan 1999; BA (Ohio) 1927, B MUS (Cincinnati) 1930, honorary D MUS (Ohio) 1978, honorary LLD (U of T) 1995. After a stint teaching school in Hawaii, she became a pupil of Ruth Townsend at the Cincinnati Conservatory and, on scholarship, of Marcella Sembrich and Florence Page Kimball at the Juilliard School. She won the Naumburg Award in 1935 and, having been selected by Edward Johnson, made her New York debut with the Metropolitan Opera as Nedda in Pagliacci in 1936. Also with the Met, she sang Marguerite in Faust in 1937. She was under contract to MGM in 1938, and later appeared in Radio City Music Hall, three Broadway productions, and on radio and TV. She toured North America in opera, operetta, and musical comedy for several years before becoming the producer and host of WNYC's 'Mr. and Mrs. Opera' (1949-58) and of the MBS's 'The Ruby Mercer Show' (1954-8). She first sang in Canada as Sophie in a production of Werther for the short-lived revival of Albert Clerk-Jeannotte'sMontreal Opera Company (31 Oct 1933); then in a 1937 performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 at Plateau Hall, Montreal, with the CSM Orchestra and the Disciples de Massenet under Paul Stassevitch. She returned in 1944 and 1945 to sing in TUTS productions in Vancouver.

In 1958 she married Hungarian-Canadian businessman Geza Por (d 1965) and moved to Toronto, where she founded the periodical Opera Canada which she edited 1960-90. In 1968, with Lloyd Bradshaw, she founded the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus and served as its first president. She served 1962-79 as host of CBC radio's weekly 'Opera Time' and 1979-84 of the revised and expanded version, 'Opera in Stereo.'

Mercer was the author of The Tenor of His Time (Toronto 1976), a biography of Edward Johnson, and The Quilicos - Louis, Gino and Lina (Oakville, Ont, 1990). She contributed articles to EMC, Musical America, and Opera News. After retirement in 1990, she continued to contribute columns and reviews to Opera Canada and to serve on its board and editorial committee. Mercer was awarded the Canadian Music Council medal in 1983, and a Toronto Arts lifetime achievement award in 1988. She received honours from the State of Ohio, and from Ohio University and Cincinnati College-Conservatory, where she provided voice scholarships; she also provided a scholarship at the Banff Centre, and endowed an award for University of Toronto's Opera Division. She was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 1995. In 1997 she donated her papers to the National Library of Canada.

Mercer has been recognized as a champion of opera in Canada and as pivotal in raising the profile of Canadian artists at home and abroad. Writing in Opera Canada about her contribution to that magazine and the CCOC, Louis Quilico said, "Her soul and spirit went into these organizations and made operatic life in Canada vibrant and meaningful."

--  Article by Betty Nygaard King, from The Canadian Encyclopedia (with correction) 




Among my many long-held subscriptions to musical magazines, Opera Canada is one I look forward to four times each year.  Not only does it have interesting and under-reported items, I always found it to be balanced and laden with mostly as-yet-unseen photographs.  Perhaps it is as a tribute to that aspect that I have included three rather unusual items discovered on the internet...

Full disclosure also allows me to tell you that I contributed one item to the magazine.  In the fall of 1981, Gian Carlo Menotti was in Chicago to supervise (and appear in!) his opera The Egg, and I wrote a review which Mercer accepted and ran.  [Names which are links on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.] 

A decade later, she was in Chicago to hear some auditions, and agreed to be interviewed herself, a turnabout from her usual role as the one asking the questions!  Needless to say, she was delightful, with stories and opinions, as well as advice.  Our half-hour together was something I never forgot, and it pleases me to be able to share it now in this forum.

Having been a broadcaster herself, Mercer was used to getting a few details out of the way before the microphone went live . . . . . . . . .


Ruby Mercer:    You don’t want to be addressed as Mister Duffie?

Bruce Duffie:    No, just Bruce is fine.

RM:    Oh, good.  I’m Ruby.

BD:    It’s interesting that you would bring that up because we’ll just talk about things, and we probably won’t need to address each other.

RM:    Well, I had a thought.  You’ll appreciate this.  I had this show in New York City for so many years on the mutual network.

BD:    Was that Mr. and Mrs. Opera?

RM:    Oh, no.  That was on WNYC, the local station, but this was on the Mutual Network.  I had this hour show, and I played pop music releases and then did interviews in between.  I had a lot of opera people, but I also had people in all works of life.  I had the head of the agricultural something-or-other of Great Britain, one time.  Anyway, one time I had Bob Hope.

BD:    Ah!

RM:    I’d play a record, and then while the record is playing we would sit and chat about what are we going to say, blah, blah, blah.  Then the record was ending, so we go on the air.  So we were sitting there and we were talking, and I’d look at him and say, “Oh, Mr. Hope, Mr. Hope,” and he said, “Call me Bob.”  I said, “Oh, Bob, but we just met!”  [Both laugh]  “No,” he said, “They expect it out there!”  So I said, “All right,” and we had a wonderful interview, one of the longest ones I ever had!  We talked for over 40 minutes in this hour show.  We didn’t get much music in the show that time and, at the end, after we’d said Bob and Ruby, and Ruby and Bob, as he’s going out I said, “Thank you so much, Mr. Hope.”  [Laughs]

BD:    So it was just the on-air presence.

RM:    That’s right, yes.


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BD:    Tell me just a bit about Edward Johnson.

RM:    I never did a program with Edward Johnson.  I wrote a book on his life after he died, but oddly enough it was after I had moved to Canada.  He heard me at Juilliard as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, and that’s why I went to the Metropolitan Opera.  He was then General Director of the Met, and he came back to my dressing room.  I still see him standing in the doorway.  He congratulated me, and he said that my trill on a high D was the most thrilling thing he had heard since Lily Pons interpolated a high G at the end of her aria in her debut at the Met in Lucia.  Then he asked me if I knew Pagliacci, and I said yes I did.  So he invited me to the Met a few days later for an audition. 

BD:    When did you move up to Canada?

RM:    I moved to Canada in 1958 when my husband was in business there.

BD:    Where were you from originally?

RM:    Athens, Ohio, the home of Ohio University.  My father was the conductor of the local male chorus, and so I had music all around me from the time I was little.  When I grew up and I lost my mother my last year in university, then I wanted to get out and I had an opportunity to go to Honolulu and teach piano at a private school there.  I lived on Honolulu for a year, which was a wonderful experience.  I was always singing, and somebody heard me singing around the school while the children were out playing.  I was in the library or the gymnasium singing with piano, and a
famous diva from London, England, one Madame Townsend, was visiting the director of this private school, and she asked to come and meet this person who was singing.  She asked what I intended to do with my voice.  I said I didn’t know, and so she said, “With your voice, you should be in opera.”  She had connections there, and the upshot of it was I really wanted to be in opera!  So I cashed in my check for a vacation in the Orient and went back to Ohio.  She had nothing more to do with my career the rest of the way; it was just that moment.  So I went back and auditioned, and got a scholarship at the Cincinnati Conservatory and stayed there for two years.  Then somebody who was hearing auditions from the Juilliard School in New York happened to hear me, and said he wanted me to come for an audition.  So I did, and out of that I got a scholarship.  I went to New York and had a rather difficult time.  I was thinking about how I could finance myself.  I was a very honest girl, so everything I got came honestly.  I sang in churches, and sang a club date now and then, anything and everything.  I made my own clothes.  I was a terrible seamstress, but in those days when you’re young and you had the spirit, you have the figure that you can hang anything on.  Some way or other I managed, and then from Juilliard I went straight to the Met.

BD:    How long did you sing there?

RM:    I was there two seasons, and then I got a contract at MGM that turned out to be rather disastrous, inasmuch as that took me away from the Met.  I went there in the middle of one season and came back in the middle of another, which meant I lost out on two seasons at the Met.  When I came back they wanted me to audition again.  Naturally they wanted to hear me, to know what had happened in two years.  So I was all set to audition for them, and the only trouble was that one of the ways I was making money was singing at the Radio City Music Hall, six and eight shows a day!  We do such stupid things when we are young!  I went dashing down between shows to do my Metropolitan Opera audition.  Edward Johnson was still there, and he came up to the footlights and he said, “Ruby, you didn’t sing as well as usual.”  I said, “Well, of course not, Mr. Johnson.  I’m tired.”  [Both laugh]  Later they wanted me to come back, but I was so hurt that they didn’t take me that time that I never auditioned there again.  I did some Broadway shows and I sang all over the country and in Canada.

BD:    But you never lost your love for opera.

mercerRM:    Oh, no!  Definitely not.  Eventually I got the regular radio show on WOR, the Mutual Network, and that was on every week.  Before that I also had the Mr. and Mrs. Opera program, done on WNYC.  My first husband was a pianist and a radio announcer, and he said, “Look, they’ve given me an opera show.  I don’t know anything about opera.  You’re the one who should come down and talk about it.”  I’d never been on the radio, so I didn’t know, and he said, “Well, come down and see what it’s like.”  So innocently I went down, and he sat me at a table.  He was on the other side with a microphone between us, and he’s on the air talking, and he asks me a question.  Well, of course, I couldn’t be stupid.  After all, we are on the air!  If he asked me a question, I had to answer it.  They had all kinds of mail coming in, and they wanted to hear the voice of this girl again.  [Both laugh]  So that’s the way we started what we called then the Mr. and Mrs. Opera program that became tremendously popular.  I’ve just finished my second biography.  My first biography was on Edward Johnson, which came out about six years ago.  My second book was the biography of the Quilico family, Louis Quilico and Gino Quilico and the mother, Lena Quilico, who died recently, unfortunately.  Anyway, opera was there from the beginning, and opera continued to be there.

BD:    You’ve turned this into a different kind of career than the way you started out, because you’re now running a magazine.

RM:    Oh, that’s after I came to Canada.  As a matter of fact, when I left New York and came to Canada I had twelve radio shows and one TV show every week.

BD:    That’s a lot!

RM:    That was a lot.  I had no time to sing, and I didn’t dare leave town because I had all the programs.  So little by little I was singing practically not at all, just singing now and then at some private things, so by the time I came to Canada and married somebody who was a businessman, I thought I’d just lead an entirely different life.  I’ll be just a lady and entertain all the time.  But at the end of six months I missed opera so much that when the CBC invited me to do an opera show, I agreed to do it.  I had my own opera show every week on CBC for twenty years.

BD:    This was music and interview?

RM:    Music and interview, very much on the same principle as Mr. and Mrs. Opera in New York.

BD:    When did you start Opera Canada?

RM:    I moved to Toronto in 1958, and I started Opera Canada in 1960.  I was the founder and the editor all through the years, and then after thirty years I thought that was enough time and I should retire.  So I retired, and I suggested that the person to succeed me was a young man who had worked for me on the magazine for a couple of years around 1970 and ’72.  He was very knowledgeable about opera, and was a writer always, never a performer.  He was interested, and he knew the promotional field, the publicity field, and I thought he would be a very good person to follow as editor.  I’m on the board, but now I lecture a great deal.  I also founded twenty years ago an international children’s opera chorus, the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, and they perform in all of the operas that the Canadian Opera Company give.  I also discovered there were no operas for children, practically nothing.  Take Hansel and Gretel and things like that which have good music, otherwise you would get little things [sings to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star] “A-b-c-d-e-f-g.”  But to have good composers writing good things for children to perform didn’t exist.  So I commissioned a young Canadian composer [Charles Wilson] to do an opera for our little Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus.  We had thirty-two children, and he did one called The Selfish Giant with Louis Quilico as the selfish giant.  Later we would have Chip and His Dog by Menotti.


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*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve just come from auditions, listening to people sing.  What do you look for when various new people come to sing for you?

RM:    In this case, this is an audition for the National Opera Association and Opera for Youth, and prizes are given for once.  You look for different things.  It depends a great deal on the criteria of the particular organization who’s giving the prizes.  For instance, I’ve been on the Metropolitan Opera auditions, so you’re looking primarily for voice.

BD:    What kind of a voice, or just voice?

RM:    Just voice and it should be a good,  healthy, fundamental voice with a good range and a good technique for singing. 

BD:    Power?

RM:    You’ve got to have that if you expect to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and be heard.  You can’t have somebody singing softly, and you don’t want somebody who can’t sing on key, or somebody who is just beginning and doesn’t know how to hold the breath or doesn’t know how to support  tones.  In this case, though, this was a general audition of the National Opera Association, and we’re here at the moment for the annual national convention.  I was looking for what I would be looking for any place and on any audition is fundamentally a good, natural voice with a good range.  Then you hope that they have some technique for singing, technique to back it up.  Then you look for their appearance, how they look, whether they would be any good on stage or not, and if they smile.  I’m not thinking of opera now; it might only be just concerts.

BD:    Is it you’re looking for whether they’re comfortable with themselves?

RM:    No, physically and personality-wise.  You know yourself there are times when you’ve heard speakers or singers, and the minute they walk on the stage you’re with them and you’re interested.  You have other people who walk on the stage and you couldn’t care less.  That is all part of it.  You’re looking for something that would stand out from the crowd, possibly.  Maybe it won’t be there just yet, but what the potential might be.  Also whether they’re very serious, or they have a sense of humor, how varied their talent is, personality-wise as well as vocally.

BD:    So you look for all of these things in some kind of balance?

RM:    Yes.

BD:    Are you generally pleased, or are you generally disappointed?

mercerRM:    I’m generally interested.  You hear some and you think, “Oh, there, now that’s a good voice, but there is so much work to be done.”  If you’re thinking of them just to encourage them to go ahead and study, that’s one thing.  If you’re thinking of them as a potential to perform in the foreseeable future, that’s something else.

BD:    You’ve been performing and listening to voices for a long time.  How do the voices that are coming along stack up alongside of previous generations?

RM:    I think there are more good voices around now.  One of the reasons is that they’re more conscious of voice, and the potential of where the voice might go in the future.  Previously there were probably a lot of good voices around, but people didn’t know about them and nobody paid much attention.  There weren’t openings for them to appear before the public.  I know that when I was growing up, we weren’t as vocally conscious as we are today.  There were a few choral groups, but there were less, and the world was much smaller then.  We didn’t even hear about what was happening in the rest of the world.

BD:    Are you optimistic, then, about the future of opera with these new singers coming along?

RM:    Oh, very much so, and I think it’s taken hold.  I don’t know where opera’s going.  For instance, I’ve just seen a performance of I Puritani by the Chicago Lyric Opera [with June Anderson and Chris Merritt, conducted by Donato Renzetti].  Wonderful voices in there, and a very fine production, but very much in the old school.  Very old-fashioned, and you wonder.  I’m going to see The Gambler [by Prokofiev, with Jacque Trussel and Sherri Greenawald, and many smaller roles taken by members of the Lyric Opera School, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti] which would be right up to date, but I’m sorry I haven’t seen that one yet because I’d like to compare them with you.  But most of the things today are very, for want of a better word, they’re modern in the sense they reflect the pace of our life today, much more than, for instance, I Puritani.  Everything was very elegant, very slow.  Things were dramatic, but when wars were waged, it wasn’t bang-bang and they fall over.  The people were running with these long spears to try to skewer somebody!  [Both laugh]  It’s a different world.

BD:    Is it going too fast?

RM:    Who knows?  I’m not completely with it, though I see the young people today and think, “My goodness!”  They’re dancing, and sometimes I itch to get out there with them, and I think, “Oh, now, really!  I would look rather ridiculous.”  It’s a completely new pace, but then I think back to the twenties and thirties.  I don’t remember the twenties so well, but the thirties and the forties, and there were some real peppy dances going around at that time, too!  Remember the Charleston?

BD:    Oh, sure.

RM:    That was an active thing, too, I suppose as active as they are today, but quite a different pace.

BD:    Then let me ask the big philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of opera?

RM:    What’s the purpose of theater in general?  What’s the purpose of symphonies?  It’s all entertainment of a kind, but entertainment for opera versus symphony, is that the symphony is something to give you pleasure, and possibly take your mind out of the everyday problems, and carry you musically and emotionally into some sort of other world.  Whereas opera is a reflection of some facet of life, and it recreates it for you.   It takes you also out of what is now.  You wouldn’t be sitting in a chair.  If you’re watching an opera, whether it’s on television or in the theater, you are there physically, but your imagination takes you off into another world.  And if in addition to taking you to the other world, opera can give you music and the added dimension of the drama, which symphony doesn’t have, that’s all to the better, all to the good.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to singers just for a moment, what advice do you have for the next generation coming along?

RM:    Fundamentally, if somebody is ambitious and wants to have a career in music, then the first thing you have to do is find a good teacher, and hope and pray to God you have made a good choice.  [Both laugh]  That teacher has to teach you how to support a voice and how to emit the voice when you are singing.  Tomorrow, maybe everybody will wear a body mike and you’ll no longer have to have a big voice.  I haven’t any idea what’s going to happen.  I don’t think so, though, because you still have to have the orchestra, and if you have to have the orchestra, then people walking around with body mikes can drown the orchestra, possibly.


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BD:    But they might use the body mikes just to sweeten the voice a little.

RM:    Yes, that’s right, they could.  Who knows what’s going to happen?  But as to my advice for singers, besides just learning, try not to go ahead too fast.  For instance, take the Quilicos.  In my new book that’s just out now, we find that young Gino Quilico worked with his father and his mother.  He said to his father, “I want to sing seriously.  Will you take me?  Will you let me study with you?”  Louis said to him, “If you’re serious and will work seriously, yes.”  So they started, and at one point he would argue with his father, and after one of these sessions, Louis said to him, “Gino, out.  Get out.  You’re not serious. You’re here to argue and not to learn.  Get out and don’t come back.”  So Gino left, and he thought about it for some time.  He finally decided that he wanted to sing, and he knew that his father was the one to teach him.  He would just have to control himself.  So he finally went back and apologized and said he was there to learn.  So Louis and his wife, Gino’s mother, didn’t let Gino sing anything for six months.  He would only vocalize to learn how to produce the tones and how to support the tone.  Sometimes young people will sing too much too soon, and they force the voice, force the cords, force the muscles and ruin a voice, a voice that was perfectly steady to begin with.  [Demonstrates a particularly unsteady tone]  You’re heard those sorts of voices.

BD:    Sure.  Too often, I’m afraid. [Laughs]

RM:    That’s right.  Then they wouldn’t allow Gino to sing any roles that weren’t right.  Now he has a big career on his own, but for the first two, three, four, five years, he didn’t sing anything that he didn’t go over first with his father and his mother, to see whether it was right for his voice.  He’s a high baritone, a higher baritone than his father ever was, and one time he called his mother from Europe and he said, “Mom, I’m going to be a tenor.”  Lena said to him, “You’re what???”  He said, “They want me over here to be a tenor.  I’ve decided I’m going to be a tenor.”  She told him,
Gino, you’ll do nothing of the sort.  Just because you can sing some high notes doesn’t mean that you’re a tenor.  You are a baritone.  You are a high baritone, and don’t forget it.” 

BD:    And that was that?

RM:    And that was that.  He took her advice and he’s making a tremendous career.  He’s done films and a lot of television and radio, and sings now at La Scala and the Met and all the leading opera houses all over the world.  He and his father now sing some things together.  His father is 67 years old now, so he’s going to give up some of these roles that he did for years that were so demanding vocally and physically, like Rigoletto.  He’s doing his final Rigolettos in Canada in Montreal.  He’s doing three at the Met in the spring, and he expects that it will be the final Rigolettos of his career.  But he sings a Leporello to his son’s Don Giovanni.  It’s great to keep it all in the family.

BD:    What advice do you have for opera audiences?

RM:    I don’t know what advice I would have for opera audiences.  Ideally I would tell them to read the score, or at least read something about it before you go to be prepared.  But I don’t think on the whole they’re going to do it.  Still, I would urge them to learn as much about opera as possible.  Learn the history of opera, what has happened in the past, and learn about opera singers so you know the field, so you have a feeling for it.  That way you appreciate it differently.  If you listen to opera on the radio, if you watch the telecasts of opera, if you work locally with guilds and with the women’s committees and that sort of thing, you’d be surprised how that builds an interest.  And once that interest has been built, the people begin to feel that it is part of their world.  It’s a very rich world, the opera world, because it offers everything by way of entertainment.

BD:    Is the opera world for everybody?

RM:    Is hockey or football for everybody?  It’s for more people, of course, than opera, but I would say opera can be for everybody.  Shakespeare isn’t for everybody, either.

BD:    But it can be for anybody?

RM:    It can be for anybody.  Opera can be for anybody, but people who have a greater knowledge of, or appreciation of, or exposure to classical music are more apt to be inveigled by opera, and to get more from it.  Otherwise, they’ll go the route of... it used to be operettas.  Now there’s Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon coming out, and things like that.  They’re not opera, but they’re not not-opera.  They’re musicals of a kind.

BD:    They’re extravaganzas.

RM:    Yes, that’s right, and who knows what the future holds?  I don’t know.


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BD:    Do you have any advice for composers of opera?

RM:    My advice would be for the composer to do what his conscience and his talent tell him to do.  Far be it from me to tell a composer what to do or how to write, or anything of that sort, but I think that a composer writing now in a very old-fashioned way
copying Mozart or one of the old composerswould be wasting his time.  I think he has to put it in the modern idiom, in the vocabulary that is understood by today’s audiences, which he hopes to have.

[At this point we did a little more radio-station-business.  I asked her to record a station-break for us, which she gladly did.  (“Hello, this is Ruby Mercer, and you are listening to WNIB, Classical 97, in Chicago.”)  I then asked her about her birthdate...]

RM:    [Laughs]  Well, I usually say it this way, “I don’t deny it if you happen to know it, but I don’t publicize it.”  It isn’t a great thing, but I wouldn’t like you to make a great big to-do about it.  My birthday is July 26th.  I’m a Leo.  [Whispers]  And I was born in 1906.  As I say, I don’t deny my age, but I prefer not to talk too much about it.  I get much more fun out of life without thinking about it.  Sometimes, when I realize how the years have added up, I think, “My goodness, what am I doing at this, that, and the other?”  Then you begin to worry about it.  I’d rather just put it behind me and not discuss it and not talk about it.  As long as I’m healthy, thank the bon Dieu, and continue to have my interest in people and things, and am physically capable of doing it all, that’s what I prefer.

BD:    I hope you’re able to do it for a long time to come.

RM:    Thank you very much.  I love life.

BD:    Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

RM:    Well, I enjoyed it.  I really did!  It was great to meet you.  I love Chicago because I sang here many times.  I didn’t sing with the Chicago Opera Company.  Mike Todd had a musical here, and then I sang with the radio here many times.  I also sang with Salvatore Baccaloni in the Chicago Opera House.  We did a national tour with Don Pasquale and The Barber of Seville.  I was the Norina and the Rosina.

BD:    He was a wonderful bass.

RM:    Oh, yes!

BD:    Thank you so very much.

RM:    Thank you.




Obituary: Ruby Mercer
by Elizabeth Forbes, published in The Independent


RUBY MERCER, American-born, Canadian by adoption, had two quite distinct careers. In her youth she trained as a music teacher, then became a singer and appeared successfully as a soprano at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, on Broadway and in opera houses and concert halls across America. She spent a year under contract to MGM in Hollywood, though she never actually appeared before the cameras. She also broadcast frequently, and became a radio personality, hosting 13 shows each week, including the popular Mr. and Mrs. Opera on WNYC.

After her marriage to a Canadian businessman, Mercer moved to Toronto, where she founded, and for 30 years edited, the quarterly magazine Opera Canada. She also founded the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus and wrote two excellent biographies of Canadian singers: The Tenor of his Time (1976), a life of Edward Johnson, the Toronto-born tenor who was manager of the Metropolitan Opera from 1935 to 1950; and The Quilicos (1991), about the baritone Louis Quilico, his wife Edna, a pianist, and his son Gino, also a baritone.

Ruby Mercer was born in Athens, Ohio, in 1906. A foundling, she was brought up in the house of a choirmaster, where music and singing were part of everyday life. After training as a music teacher at Ohio University, she took a job in Honolulu, but did not stay there long, as a visiting singer from England heard her sing and recommended that she became a professional.

Mercer enrolled at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and after graduating, obtained a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York. While singing Zerbinetta in a student performance of Struass's Ariadne auf Naxos, she was heard by Edward Johnson, who had just become manager of the Metropolitan, and who arranged an audition for her.

Having made her professional debut as Nannetta in Falstaff at Philadelphia, Mercer made her Metropolitan debut on 6 June 1936 as Nedda in Pagliacci, obtaining excellent reviews. The following season she sang Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, and prepared Violetta in La Traviata, though she never got to sing the role as the opera house closed owing to a heat wave.

Ruby Mercer was a very handsome woman as well as a fine singer with a beautiful voice, and in 1937 she was tempted to Hollywood by MGM; but no parts were forthcoming, and it turned out that the studio was merely using her to force Jeanette MacDonald to renew her contract at a more reasonable salary.

Returning to New York, she sang at Radio City Music Hall, and in 1940 appeared at the New York World Fair in The Gay New Orleans Revue. She also sang in three shows on Broadway, including in 1941 Offenbach's La Vie parisienne. Throughout the 1940s she toured the North American continent in opera, operetta and musical, appearing in such shows as Sigmund Romberg's New Moon and Oscar Straus's The Chocolate Soldier, as well as La Bohème and Die Fledermaus. Her career on radio also flourished. When in 1958 she married Geza Por, a Hungarian-born businessman from Toronto, the second, Canadian half of her life began.

Ruby Mercer found little opera in Canada, and even worse, little awareness of opera, so she set about changing matters as quickly as possible, envisaging a magazine on the lines of Opera News in New York. The first number of Opera Canada was published in spring 1969. At first limited to reviews on opera performances in Canada, and to news about Canadian singers at home and abroad, it grew steadily in size and scope, including a section of opera reviews world-wide. I became the UK correspondent in 1973, but did not meet Mercer face-to-face until 1983. By then, through countless letters and phone calls, we had become firm friends. She was a most stimulating companion, she had been everywhere, she knew everybody in the opera world.

An intrepid traveller, who made expeditions to Africa, South America, China and such faraway places, Mercer planned many summer trips to European festivals, but she was accident-prone, and these trips did not always materialise. Once she was badly burned in Kenya when she stepped in a hidden fire-pit. She did come to Europe in 1989, visiting London, Glyndebourne, Vienna, Bayreuth and Salzburg, as well as Budapest, in order to visit her husband's relations. She revisited Hawaii, where she got the idea for the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, founded in 1968 with 40 children, a number that has now grown to 160.

On another trip to Hawaii she met the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who had appeared on her radio show Mr. and Mrs. Opera, and commissioned him to write a children's opera for the CCOC. The result, Chip and his Dog, was performed at the Guelph Spring Festival in 1979.

She continued to broadcast frequently in Toronto, on CBC and CFMX. She even made a stage appearance as Princess Bozena in Kalman's Countess Maritza at Toronto Operetta Theatre in 1986. Meanwhile honours and awards rolled in: in 1983 the Canadian Music Council Medal; in 1986 the Governor of Ohio's Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts; in 1988 a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Toronto Arts Awards; and many more. In 1990, at the age of 84 and exactly 30 years after founding Opera Canada, Ruby Mercer retired as editor. She became a Canadian citizen the following year, and in 1995 was named a Member of the Order of Canada.

Ruby Mercer, singer, broadcaster and magazine editor: born Athens, Ohio 26 July 1906; OC 1995; married 1958 Geza Por (deceased); died Toronto, Ontario 26 January 1999.





© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 14, 1991.  This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.